This morning, we began the day by taking a trip…to the Post Office! We packed two boxes with a combination of art books Tali’s bought on the trip so far, and clothing and cycling gear we don’t need, and sent them by sea back to our home in Colorado. They will be delivered, hopefully, in about 40 days, just before we return from New Zealand. The cost was a bit under $100 USD for about 22 kg, much cheaper than the airlines would charge us for excess baggage.
We may send one more box before we fly to Lhasa in about two weeks, just to be sure we’re under the limit, though we can’t do anything about the bicycles we’ve got! Because Xinjiang Province is a “sensitive area,” government-speak for the domestic disturbances that frequently pit the Uygurs against the Chinese Police, the mail lady examined what we were sending very carefully, and would not allow any electric cords or computer cables, for example!
After we finished our mission at China Post, we began our sightseeing today by driving out into the desert surrounding Turpan. We passed by the Flaming Mountains tourist site, because we could clearly see the red sandstone hills from the road, and with the sun not out yet, the effect of them appearing to be engulfed in fire wasn’t visible, anyway.
On we drove to Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, a bit over fifty km northeast of Turpan. These grottoes, some carved into a steep mountainside, and some built of sun-dried bricks, date from the 4th century A.D. They were found by German adventurers about 100 years ago, at the time filled with sand. When they started to excavate, they saw that the wall paintings, murals and sculptures were in perfect condition, with their bright colors and beautiful details perfectly preserved over the centuries by the sand, and the hot, dry desert climate.
Unfortunately, they removed almost all the sculptures and paintings, and shipped them to a museum in Berlin, which was then destroyed during the Allied bombing raids of World War II. What they left in place was later crudely defaced by Uygur Moslems, leaving just the feeling of how beautiful and moving Bezeklik must have been when it was intact, out here in this inhospitable and dangerous desert, especially for the Silk Road Caravans who may have stopped here.
As we left Bezeklik, the wind suddenly became much stronger, and the blowing sand quickly brought our visibility down to almost zero. The sand also created a beautiful multi-colored pattern in the sky, almost like a small rainbow enclosed within a cloud. I got such a strong feeling of what it must have been like for the Silk Road travelers – such a mixture of danger and beauty, fear and awe – what an experience traveling on the Road by caravan must have been!
Our next stop was the village of Astana, about forty km southeast of Turpan, home to a large Tang dynasty burial ground, with three tombs excavated and open to visitors. In one, there was a mummified couple, very well preserved due to the sands, the climate, and the preservation techniques in use at the time. In the other two tombs, the mummified remains had completely disintegrated, and Tali told me that wasn’t unusual – that even with the same techniques, same climate, similar tombs, some human bodies remain in excellent condition for centuries, while others disintegrate quite quickly. We believe that the condition of the body reflects the development of the soul and spirit, and this idea is supported by what we saw today.
Finally for our last stop of the day, we attempted to visit another set of caves, this one located in the ancient adobe village of Tuyoq, about 70 km east of Turpan, but they were closed, because of the crumbling condition of the hillside they were built into. Still, we had a lovely stroll around the village, admiring the mixture of earth-colored adobe buildings with the brilliant greens of the grapevines, and the ancient, but still fruiting mulberry trees growing there.
During our walk in Tuyoq, the desert afternoon sun came out in all its splendor, and it became quite hot out, so hot and dry that just walking around was exhausting. For the first time in the three days we’ve been here, it became really clear why the people who live here rest in shaded outdoor daybeds during the heat of the afternoon, only arising once the temperatures start to drop! By the time we arrived back in Turpan, we were quite happy to have a quick dinner, and return to our air-conditioned hotel room for a refreshing shower!
Tomorrow we begin the 1600 km drive and cycle west that will eventually take us to Kashgar, by driving to Korla, where we will spend the night. It’s definitely time to leave the Turpan depression for, hopefully, some cooler weather!